Category Archives: Women

The privilege of experiencing “un-privilege”

I had an experience when I was in an African country last November that I have wanted to write about ever since, but it is one that I have struggled both to fully understand and to articulate.

In some of the churches we visited, men and women sit on separate sides of the room during a Sunday service. We, however, as honoured [white] guests, were often seated separately from both men and women, in the “best” seats at the front or on the side.

This Sunday, as the only white woman present, I wanted to sit with the other women in the congregation. But what actually happened was that when I sat on the women’s side, none of the local women sat with or near me. In fact, as the church filled up, it soon became glaringly obvious that despite the packed house, there was a circle with a radius of at least two metres between me and anyone else.

I felt incredibly isolated. I also felt an overwhelming mixture of frustration, anger, and sadness, which I struggled to contain. At the time, I couldn’t pinpoint who or what I was angry about, or exactly what made me feel so disconsolate.

After returning home and reflecting on the experience, I have come to the conclusion that I was simultaneously experiencing both privilege and what I will call (for want of a better term) “un-privilege.” As a white person, I was given elevated status, to the point that the other women did not feel that it was acceptable for them to sit with me. But as a woman, I did not have the status that would make it acceptable for me to sit with the men.

Now, let me say that I categorically do not wish to make any value judgments about the people I was worshipping with. About the only thing I can probably be certain of is that they were not experiencing this event the same way I was. But I do want to learn from and share about what I experienced in that moment, from my perspective.

The idea of “privilege” is one I know not everyone is comfortable with, but it has become a helpful shorthand expression for something that is very common in our world. Basically, it refers to the advantages that a group of people have due to their social status. As this status is conferred by society, it is not something that is chosen, and it can often be something very difficult for those who experience it to recognise.

Experiencing the world as a white person means I experience privilege. It means that I do not understand what it means to be disadvantaged because of the colour of my skin, and that often I am not even aware that there is any advantage or disadvantage based on skin colour. But when I listen to my friends and neighbours who experience the world every day as “people of colour” (a term that itself reeks of privilege – as if those of us who are white are “without” colour!), I realise that they face many subtle and not so subtle reminders every day that it matters what they are not.

I also experience privilege because I am educated, wealthy, heterosexual.

However, on the other hand, experiencing the world as a woman means that I experience “un-privilege.” I recognise every day that there are ways I am spoken to and spoken about, ways that I am looked at and overlooked, ways that I am valued and evaluated, that are not experienced by men.

Maths

So, why was my experience in Africa so confronting? From my perspective, something about that simultaneous experience of both privilege and un-privilege clarified things. I felt both the miserable isolation of not having the same status as the men, as well as the humbling shame of being given a status above the other women that I had done nothing to deserve.

And I think it was that shame which provoked my deepest anger, frustration and despair. The shame that reminds me that I can go through life so oblivious. To not even know that by what I assume to be my “neutral” experience I am actually both being advantaged and therefore causing others to be disadvantaged. That unless I somehow enter into the experience of those who are not like me, and try in some way to feel what un-privilege is like, I will never understand my own privilege. And so I am grateful for my experience in that church. It was confronting but in a way that I needed to be confronted. It was a privilege in the other sense of the word – a humbling gift and a source of true pleasure.

A good friend of mine was recently the only male participant in a room full of people discussing the challenges of being a woman in a male-dominated profession. He reflected afterwards on his desire to apologise as he recognised that even he, who is a gracious and forthright advocate for women’s participation in our profession, so often did not even see how the ways he spoke and acted could perpetuate the disadvantage that women experience. I felt so grateful that he was able to have that experience. I know that he will be able to make a greater difference because of it. That like me in Africa, his confrontation with the realities of un-privilege was a gift and an honour he will not scorn.

Finally, I am reminded of one of the most profound truths of the Christian faith. Incarnation. The fact that the God who had all the status and privilege in the universe chose to fully enter into the un-privilege of humanity. And the incredible wonder is, that He counted it a true privilege to do so.

Misogyny, bravery, hashtags, and speaking up (a follow up to #YesAllWomen)

I’ve been a little bit overwhelmed by the response to my recent blog post asking how the church can respond to #YesAllWomen.

For starters, a number of people called me “brave,” which while I can understand and appreciate, hasn’t sat very well with me. I guess ultimately because it saddens me that I live in a culture where naming the reality of this experience is rare enough, and can bring enough negative response, that to do so is considered courageous.

I’ve had the opportunity to reflect further on why this is, and I recognise that I am part of the problem. When experiences like I named in my post happen, whether to me or to others, I still tend to respond to them as if they are anomalies, one-offs. Perhaps I don’t say anything because I wilfully forget that they are happening all around me, often to women much younger than I who have much less influence and ability to speak up about it.

My awareness has been raised to the point that I have thought through what I am going to say when (not if) I am in a situation where a woman or girl is being touched or spoken to inappropriately. No more looking back and thinking “I wish I had said something,” or “I was so shocked I didn’t think quickly enough to say something.”

I am so grateful for the incredibly positive responses I have had to my post. What has been particularly pleasing is the way this conversation has been picked up offline in a number of ways. It’s easy to be “outraged” on the internet, and some question the value of hashtags and blogs as “slacktivism” – a replacement for activism that might make us feel better, but doesn’t actually change anything. I’m hopeful that #YesAllWomen is much more. In this case, simply raising awareness is in and of itself “doing something.”

I’m grateful for all the women who have told me “I never realised it wasn’t just me,” and for all the men who have said, “I’m so shocked, how did I not know about this?” Now that we are all more aware, my hope is that next time we see something like this happening, we will all speak up. Men in particular, if you hear other men catcalling women, or making jokes about rape, please ask them to stop. If you see a woman in a situation where she looks uncomfortable, ask her, “Is this man making you uncomfortable?”

I’m incredibly humbled by the women who have shared with me their horrific stories of abuse. Given what I said above, I won’t call them “brave,” but I will call them important, honourable and gracious. 

I’m thankful too for the (male) pastors in my family of churches who have asked how we can continue this conversation into the future. While I’ve always been a little hesitant to be pigeonholed as a ‘spokesperson’ for women, if God has given me the opportunity and influence to bring this issue into the light, I am going to grab it with both hands. This is not a “women’s issue.” It is a leadership issue, a culture issue, a church issue, and a gospel issue.

Finally, I was reminded again yesterday, powerfully and publicly, why #YesAllWomen exists, and needs to exist, in the church. Christianity Today’s online Leadership Journal published a six-page article in which a convicted rapist, writing from jail, was given a platform to explain his actions – which he did by characterising his sexual abuse of a child as a “relationship,” lamenting the consequences he has faced since being caught without once taking ownership of what he had done to his victim. The article was tagged by the editors with the words “Adultery” and “Mistake.” (These have since been removed. They have not been replaced by “Rape” or “Crime.”)

[If you don’t know what I’m referring to and want to, see Tamara Rice’s excellent post].

What has been encouraging is the response of so many men and women, calling for CT to #TakeDownThatPost, another hashtag that has so far caused Leadership Journal to add a disclaimer, and then edit the article (not particularly well). I’m still hopeful they will respond by deleting it, but the conversations it has provoked among a number of high profile Christian leaders about misogyny, victim-blaming, and minimising abuse, demonstrate that when we listen to one another, when we become more aware, we learn and grow and things can change. And if it takes a hashtag to help that process along, well, God has used stranger methods.

 

Update: about an hour after I posted this, Christianity Today responded to #TakeDownThatPost by deleting the post and apologising for publishing it. So pleasing, and so good to see an internet apology that is not, “Sorry you were offended by us,” but rather, “Sorry, we did the wrong thing and we should not have.”

How does the church respond to #YesAllWomen?

I remember the conversation so vividly. I was seventeen, it was a Saturday morning in summer, and our youth group was clearing the garden of an elderly church member. Taking a break, I found myself sitting cross-legged in a circle on the grass with five other young women around my age. I don’t remember how the conversation started, or who said something first. It wasn’t a topic we had talked about before, nor was it one we ever mentioned again. But someone was brave enough to share her experience of being groped by one of the guys in our group – not asked for, not consented to. Someone else told a similar story, then someone else. And for the first time in my life, I realised that this kind of thing wasn’t something that had just happened to me, or to a couple of us, or even to most of us. It was the experience of us all.

Every. Single. One.

So when #YesAllWomen started trending on twitter last weekend, I was immediately taken back to that conversation all those years ago. And I was reminded once again that my group of friends were not an anomaly, but that this is the common experience of everyone who grows up female in our society.

I realise that the immediate context for the twitter conversation was a specific instance of violence, and I realise that not all men are perpetrators of harassment and violence against women, but it exasperates me that I have to name those as caveats, because as far as I can tell, no one is suggesting otherwise. But too often this kind of conversation is derailed by those kinds of responses. No, not all men are like this. But when enough are to make this the experience of yes, all women, then surely it’s time to have an open conversation about it.

For Christians, it is easy to think these things happen to women “out there,” but not to the women in your church. That is a mistake. I could tell you story after story of women I know, but part of the point of #YesAllWomen was to hear women speak their own experiences. And so while I have hesitated to do so, for any number of reasons, let me tell you just a few of mine.

The guy in my youth group who repeatedly grabbed my breasts while playing rough games. The young man who heard me speak on a Christian radio program and emailed me to tell me what he would like to “do to me.” The man who got my number from the church bulletin and phoned me in the middle of the night with sexually explicit threats. The “sweet old man” at church who backed me into a corner and shared details of the dreams he had about me while stroking my hand.

I’ve never told anyone most of those stories before. They are awkward and embarrassing and to be honest there is still a part of me that feels like saying them out loud will make people think I’m making a big deal out of nothing. But the truth is my experience is the same as nearly every woman I know. This is the culture in which we live.

She's Someone

And all of these stories I told took place within the context of the church. The community called to model the Kingdom of God, where peace and justice and love are to be demonstrated. If anywhere should be a place safe from harassment and violation, surely it should be here.

So how does the church respond to the reality of a culture which is marked by everyday sexism and sexual harassment of women? Where all kinds of bad behaviour is minimised as “boys being boys” and women are expected to laugh it off or be flattered? Where many women, myself included, are afraid of being labelled strident trouble-makers for even mentioning this topic?

I’ll be honest. I’m a leader in the church and I struggle to know how to respond to this. I’m a woman in the church and most of the time I try to forget that this is how it is.

But maybe, like the twitter conversation, we need to start by being frank and open about this. How can we even begin to reach out to our community with a message of hope and healing, if we are not willing to name the reality of our experience? If we are not willing to call out what Tara Moss eloquently called the “toxic silence”? (for which she has since received rape threats).

I would say to pastors and preachers, leaders in the church, both men and women, read the #YesAllWomen conversation, and as you read, picture the women in your church speaking. How will that reshape the way we preach, teach, and care?

Beyond responding within our own community, I love the question Suzanne Burden concludes her excellent blog on this topic with:

“What if the Church started leading the way culturally in decrying injustice against women and raising them up as image-bearers of God for his good purposes?”

Let me end by saying I don’t know what happened to all of those girls in that circle that summer morning. I do know that by the time we were 20, one of the six had been raped and another physically assaulted, both by young men they met at church. The one in three statistic borne out in reality, not “out there,” but in our own community. How is the church responding to that?